Speaking at a conservative political conference recently, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called teachers and public education advocates “defenders of the status quo.” Indeed, it has become one of her favorite insults, and one she seems to use increasingly when she feels defensive or under attack–something that happens pretty frequently.
The term “status quo” means “the existing state of affairs, especially regarding social or political issues”. And while Sec. DeVos uses the phrase as an epithet, I believe that a little more “status quo” would be a really good thing in public education these days.
In fact, Sec. DeVos’ use of the term just goes to show how uninformed and ignorant she really is about the current state of affairs in the schools–because if there’s one thing that public education is not right now, it’s stagnant.
In my conversations with teachers, I’m struck with how stressed and pressurized their professional lives are currently. And a great deal of this is due to the almost constant state of change, or flux, they are being forced to deal with on a daily basis.
During one recent school visit, I saw three consecutive class periods thrown into disarray by administrative announcements, student disruptions, and other interruptions. Carefully designed lesson plans were scrapped, and Plans B, C, and D were hastily put in place. These teachers skillfully improvised, on the spot, and using their experience, preparation, and deep subject matter knowledge, responded to these unexpected curve balls with grace, style, and creativity. Status quo? I wish.
On a visit to another school, a teacher confided to me that a colleague had been reassigned to another position in the district the previous week, with no explanation. The remaining teacher’s work load doubled, with no negotiation, discussion, or additional compensation, and no replacement had been provided for the reassigned teacher. Students were confused, the remaining teacher was frustrated, and the situation was quickly becoming untenable. Status quo? Not so much.
And in yet another school, the administration had recently changed the daily teaching schedule, adding new classes and moving students from one class to another class, with no consultation or advance notification. Again, students and teachers were thrown into chaos, just a few days before a week of state-mandated testing. Status quo? Not really.
I often tell my college students that learning how to teach is like playing tennis against a wall. You hit the ball against the wall, and you can accurately predict the return path of the ball. You can practice your forehand, then your backhand, secure in the knowledge that the ball will come off the wall predictably and consistently, stroke after stroke.
Actual teaching, on the other hand, is like playing tennis against a wily opponent. You hit the ball across the net, expecting a nice, easy return that you can volley back to your opponent–but your opponent has other ideas. She slices the ball down the line, whistling past your outstretched racket for a winner. There’s nothing predictable or consistent about playing tennis this way–and there are no do-overs, or practice volleys, either. It’s all live action, and someone is keeping score.
Teaching middle school, by the way, is even more challenging–teaching middle schoolers is like playing tennis against 30 opponents–each armed with a different piece of sporting equipment, playing their own sport, and playing by different rules. You hit the tennis ball across the net, and one of your opponents knocks it out of the air with a hockey stick, exchanges it for a football, throws it to another opponent, and then both of them jump over the net to your side, steal the rest of the tennis balls, and throw them over the fence and out of the court.
Here’s the thing: teachers wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, this is the joy of teaching. It’s unpredictable, crazy, unscripted, and exciting. And for the most part, our students aren’t really our opponents–they are our teammates; willing partners, along for the ride, and contributing their talents, gifts, and interests to the journey.
But for the game to be played at a high enough level to be mutually worthwhile for all players, there are a few things that need to be in place.
The playing field has to be properly maintained. The rules have to be clear and fair for all involved. And the players have to be well coached, and have the appropriate equipment.
Imagine the chaos that would ensue if the game was played on a field with the wrong markings, or if each quarter was a different length of time, or if the height of the baskets was changed every few minutes, or if the goalie was pulled from the net without letting the rest of the team know.
Sound ridiculous? That’s what is happening in the schools these days–a nearly constant state of uncertainty, confusion, and changing standards, goals, and expectations. As teachers know all too well, it’s nearly impossible to hit the bullseye when the target is always moving.
A Secretary of Education who actually spent any meaningful time in public schools would know that what would help students, teachers, and schools do their jobs better would be to provide a little bit more of the “status quo”–and not contributing to the state of flux and constant change that creates so much tension and unease in the schools.
Stop “moving the target” by constantly changing evaluation standards, testing requirements, and school schedules.
Stop “tilting the playing field” by cutting the federal education budget by $9.2 billion and rolling back regulations that protect special education services and sexual assault victims.
And stop demoralizing teachers and students by promoting private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools, instead of championing the public schools and teachers that educate over 90% of our nation’s children.
Instead of worrying about public school teachers defending the status quo, Sec. DeVos should start defending the status of public schools and teachers.
After all, that’s her job.